The 14th Pir Sultan Abdal festival was held in Sivas in 1993 to commemorate the important Alevi folk poet who lived in this central town in the 16th century. This gathering was significant for Alevis, one of the largest ethnic-religious groups in Turkey, whose identity is yet to be officially recognized. Thousands of Alevis attended the conferences, speeches and variety of religious rituals at the festival. The guest of honor was Aziz Nesin who published the Turkish translation of Salman Rushdie's book, The Satanic Verses which was later banned by the Council of Ministers. In response to Nesin’s presence at the festival, Islamic groups organized a lynch campaign on July 2, 1993, at the Madımak Hotel where guests of the festival were staying. Even though nearly 10,000 people gathered in front of the hotel and called for a massacre, and the authorities in Ankara knew of the lynch campaign, deterrent measures were not taken. In the end, the hotel was set on fire by the mob, killing 33 intellectuals, writers and artists (Sarıhan, 2009 a & 2009 b). Two of the culprits were also killed. Then-prime minister Tansu Çiller said, “Thankfully, our people outside the hotel were not harmed.” While the incident was still being investigated, the chief prosecutor at the state security court, Nusret Demiral, claimed that “There is no organization behind the incident, there is provocation,” referring to the presence of Nesin at the festival. During the trial of 124 individuals that concluded in 1994, 26 people who were sentenced to prison received reduced sentences because of Nesin’s “provocation.” The court’s reasoned decision also noted that the attack was directed at Nesin, but a miscalculation had resulted in the deaths of 37 people. Deeming that Nesin’s presence in Sivas amounted to a provocation was an attempt by the authorities to mask Turkey’s sectarian discrimination against the Alevi minority.
The trial left many of the assailants unpunished, which made the families of the victims believe that the justice had not been served. For instance, while the trial was ongoing, Cafer Erçakmak, who had played a significant role in the massacre was released along with eight other defendants and later slipped out of the country. Lawyers for the victims’ families requested the case be tried in the context of crimes against humanity. This would have prevented suspects from escaping justice by benefitting from the statute of limitations. The court did not accept their requests, and the case was eventually thrown out because the statute of limitations.
Relatives and others who had lost their loved ones have also sought to transform Madımak Hotel into a site of conscience. However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has been in power since 2002 has taken no concrete steps toward fulling their demands, just like it has ignored the Alevis’ demands for rights. After the massacre, the restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel continued to operate until 2009, when it was shut down thanks to the public pressure garnered by the victims’ families. As the movement to turn the hotel into a museum gained even more support from the public, the government bought the hotel and expropriated it in 2011. After being restored, certain parts of the hotel are used for Sivas Science and Culture Center established by and under direct control of the state.
Saharan, Ş. (2009a). Madımak Yangını: Sivas Kaitlin Davao Colt I. (The Madımak Fire: The Trial of the Sivas Massacre, vol 1) Ankara Barbarous Lanyard.
Saharan, Ş. (2009b). Madımak Yangını: Sivas Kaitlin Davao Colt II. (The Madımak Fire: The Trial of the Sivas Massacre, vol. 2) Ankara Barbarous Lanyard.
It is important to memorialize the Sivas massacre so as to shed light on the other massacres committed against the Alevis and their struggle for justice and rights. Throughout the history of the Republic of Turkey, Alevis have faced repression and at times violence: in 1921 in Koçgiri, in 1938 in Dersim, in 1978 in Malatya, in 1979 in Maraş and in 1980 in Çorum. In the 1990s, Alevis were frequently targeted in the war with the Kurds. In addition to the massacre in 1993, the Alevis were also attacked in 1995 in Istanbul's Gazi neighborhood. The events in Sivas and specifically the killing of intellectuals and artists drew wider attention, giving it a central role in struggle for justice against and memorialization of the massacres of the Alives.
Constructing a museum in the Madımak Hotel was entirely handled by the state authorities. The families of the people killed in the fire were not involved in the process to conceptualize it as a museum. As a result, the aim of this project is to oppose the construction of a state-sponsored museum in the Madımak Hotel and to turn it into a site of conscience that meets the demands of victims’ families and Alevite advocacy groups.
Today, the old lobby of the hotel is a space to memorialize those died in the massacre. It includes their short biographies and photos. To commemorate the dead, 37 fountains with their names on them were constructed. However, the names of two culprits who died in the fire were also amongst them. Including culprits’ name demonstrated how problematic this memorialization project was. In other words, victims of the massacre were commemorated alongside with the perpetrators. The site also has a bust of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk engraved with one of his quotations, “Whatever different ideas and beliefs may exist within a society, as long as a nation knows how to act together in national unity, there is no hurdle it cannot overcome and no job that it cannot complete.” The bust drew wide criticism considering the fact that Atatürk ordered the Dersim Massacre of 1938. In addition to Atatürk’s quotation, the site also has others about fraternity and solidarity by both Islamic and Alevite thinkers and poets such as by Pir Sultan Abdal, Aşık Veysel, Mevlana and Yunus Emre. On the other hand, the old restaurant of the hotel is turned into a child friendly space with a playground. It is hard to say whether the authorities have any plans to utilize the upper floors of the hotel.
The efforts to transform the Madımak Hotel into a site of conscience has been continuing in various cities across Turkey as well as Europe since 1994.
The impact of the government’s project has been very limited, because it does not meet the criteria for dealing with the past human rights violations. This memory site was unable to lessen the pain of those who lost their loved ones in Sivas. Moreover, some families expressed their discontentment with commemoration of the perpetrators alongside the victims. Hüseyin Karababa, a relative of Gülsüm Karababa who was killed that day, sued to have her name and photograph removed. The court ruled it would not be in the public interest to make a distinction between the victims and aggressors who died. Throughout the process of transforming the Madımak Hotel into a museum, Alevi civil society organizations sought to be included in the process. Rather than facing up to the past, the state’s memory project alienated almost everyone who support the democratization process.
The most serious difficulty faced in endeavors to memorialize the Sivas massacre was the execution of the project under the monopoly of the Turkish state, despite objections by the victims’ families, Alevis, civil society groups and democratization supporters. Those who have sought to transform Madımak Hotel into a dynamic memory site by organizing annual commemoration events still face serious difficulties. In 2011, the thousands who wanted to stand close to the hotel were confronted by police who used force, including pepper gas, to keep the crowd away from the hotel. On the 25th anniversary in 2018, the Governorship of Sivas organized city-wide events to commemorate the massacre. During the event, the governor Davut Gül said, “... everyone knows and understands it better now that 25 years has passed: It was a plan of forces in the shadows to drag our country into a conflict both in Sivas and in Başbağlar.” In blaming external powers, the governor once more rejected the state’s responsibility in the massacre. At the same time, the families who sought to make the Madımak Hotel a true site of conscience faced unexpected obstacles in their personal lives. The daughter of Metin Altınok, a Turkish and Alevi poet who was killed in the massacre, was fired from her job because she was involved in the effort for memorialization.